You learn early on, as a straight man, that only certain stories are acceptable for polite company. Want to tell a story about a car you drove or a beer you like or how you earn your money? At the very least other men will pretend to listen. Want to tell a story about a lesson you learned, a growth experience, a failure? It better be concise, funny, and end with an uplifting message, as in a TED talk.
Other stories are explicitly offside. You learn quickly that you can’t really talk about your sadness or your frustrations except when you’re drunk—and even then you only get one chance to gripe without being labeled as a downer. A sex story? Are you nuts—make it about the size of her tits or the insanity of her emotions. Everything else borders on the humblebrag. Want to talk about drugs? You know the old saying about dreams and drug trips. Don’t even try unless you’re Hunter S. Thompson, and even then you’re playing with fire. And spirituality? Who the fuck do you think you are, bro? The fucking Buddha? There’s no greater shame as a straight man than the desire for enlightenment.
I grew up Jewish, so for me, the road to enlightenment was paved with matzo ball soup and Seinfeld. I was circumcised—presumably against my will—and bar mitzvahed at an age when I didn’t know I could have another choice. My religious interests began to flag in my late teens, when girls and sec began to exert a greater pull than going to shul on Saturdays. Not that was something my family did: my mother liked to joke that while her sister went to Sunday school, she got the braces. When I started traveling the world in my early twenties, I quickly learned that there is more than one ethnicity who think of themselves as the chosen people—and are persecuted for both their narcissism and self-loathing. I had sworn off organized religion by the time I graduated college, and I was ready to throw myself with devotion into the atheistic pursuit of being as wealthy as possible.
I maintained my worship of the all-mighty buck for just a few years—until I had my Quarter Life Crisis. In part, my QLC was about the ending of the relationship with the girl I’d been with since I was 19. But it was also about my dissatisfaction with the progress of my career. I went to business school, and many of my peers had gone on to become bankers and consultants. They were on the path to becoming card-carrying members of the wealthy and self-involved classes. I had a good job making a decent wage that paled in comparison with my friends’ annual bonuses. In hopes of leapfrogging forward, I had applied for my MBA, believing I could hoodwink the admissions offices at Harvard and Stanford into believing that I actually wanted to be a businessman. They didn’t believe my bullshit, and neither did I. When I got rejected I naively believed that I had reached the lowest moment of my life.
Breaking free of my six-year relationship, I bought a plane ticket to India seeking my salvation. What I found instead was cheap hashish from the Himalayas and a legion of other twenty-something backpackers who were as lost as I was. Joints were shared easily, sex was easy to find, but these pursuits proved to be more soulless than I had imagined when I was safely ensconced in first love. I was floating, and I swore to both myself and my Jewish mother that I would come home with some greater vision about how I wanted to live my life and not just a minor drug addiction. I ended up being half-right.
In India, I drifted between backpacker towns, searching but never finding. Then, on a whim, I picked a town out of my Lonely Planet guidebook that I couldn’t spell, let alone pronounce. The town was called Tiruvannamalai. In Hindu lore, Tiruvannamalai is one of the sacred sites of the great god Shiva. There’s a lone mountain there with a rocky peak, a kind of baby version of Mount Fuji, and every month on the full moon, the local Brahmins dump oil on the mountaintop and set the whole thing on fire. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims arrive to walk barefoot around the circumference of the flaming mountain, singing and dancing and celebrating into the wee hours of the night. Needless to say, this experience was like nothing in my youthful Judaism. That was when my interest was first piqued about what this spirituality stuff was all about.
There are many things one can say to describe India, and most of them are right. For me, the time I spent in India before I met Sally was like a coming-out party into my adult sense of freedom. Unencumbered by relationship—for better and worse—I had no one I needed to be responsible to. Did I want to do too many drugs? Did I want to have unprotected sex? Did I want to walk barefoot around a flaming holy mountain? Besides my mother, no one on Earth gave a damn, and I only had to call home once every couple weeks. I’d never had an experience so far from the nest, and I became hungry for what I was discovering.
There were other experiences, too, even richer than what happened on that holy mountain. But after six months I returned home to realize that no one gave a fuck. Who cared what it was like to meditate in a cave in the high Himalayas? Did I get laid? How big were her tits? Had I finally found myself? What was it going to take to get back on the career ladder, did I want to apply to Wharton or Berkeley instead? I had only tasted the faintest drop of that exceptional limitless freedom, but back home I grew desperately hungry again. And there was no one to talk to. No one who understood. The almighty buck conveys material luxuries but not necessarily maturity or wisdom.
I was looking for soul, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in the consumeristic world around me. So I turned to psychedelic mushrooms.
My thirtieth birthday arrived just a few days after that final confrontation with DJ. By then, I had reached a campground overlooking a sandy beach just south of Coos Bay, having been holed up for five days due to the heavy rains from the first winter storm. I was lucky: there were clear skies that morning, and temperatures were above normal for the end of October. Now that the rains had arrived, there was no urgency to try and race south. It was a no-brainer to take another rest day to celebrate.
After DJ, I felt like a tension had dissipated that I hadn’t even realized was present. A storm had broken, and I was more relaxed than I’d been in months. I felt triumphant, and I was anxious to go deeper. I felt like I had scratched the surface of something big and important.
Around noon on my thirtieth birthday, I dug into the bottom of my bag and found a “gift” I’d received from a poet I met near Lincoln City: it was a dried psychedelic mushroom.
“Bottoms up,” I said, and devoured the thing. It tasted like earth and death.
An hour later, I was splayed out in the wild grasses on the high side of the beach, intensely observing a small spider that was struggling to weave its web between the blades of grass. A harsh wind blew the arachnid askew. It dangled like a yo-yo. I watched with bated breath, half-expecting to hear David Attenborough’s voiceover. There were whirlpools in the sand, the trees were breathing, the waves seemed to crash in time with my heartbeat. I could tell that I was about to get really, really fucking high, and in the one corner of my mind that was clinging to sobriety, I worried about being discovered, giggling wildly, while passed out in the grass. But the mushrooms were advancing on that corner, and my hold on reality was slipping. Kaleidoscopic patterns were dancing on the backs of my eyelids, and every time I blinked I lingered just a bit longer to enjoy the show. I was here, I was there, I was everywhere and nowhere. Then there was no distinction between things—I was all there ever was.
Suddenly, I found myself in what appeared to be a round room atop a medieval turret. It was night, and the neon patterns had stopped. Now, the inside of the turret was lit by torches affixed to the stone wall. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Game of Thrones.
The room was sparsely furnished—there wasn’t much more than a four-poster bed covered by a white drapery that flapped ghostly in the breeze. I couldn’t see an entrance or exit anywhere—it occurred to me that I was trapped, I was captive, in a way I was safe, but in another way, I knew I was not free. I went to the open window and looked out into the blackness. Distantly, I could hear the faint sound of drums which just as likely could have been the crashing waves. They sounded like a slowly approaching army. A war was being fought, and somehow I knew that I was at the heart of it.
I sat on the edge of the bed, thinking there was nothing I could do, nothing I could change, nowhere I could go. I was trapped; I was safe. Both had their merits.
Then, in the shadows, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. I went over to investigate—it was the landing to a staircase that descended, in a tight, spiraling coil, down towards parts unknown. I hesitated, feeling intensely fearful of leaving my cage. But something nameless urged me further. New stairs appeared in front of me as I continued to descend.
It felt like I was walking for hours—it felt like I had been walking for months, years. As I walked, I thought about Mushroom Sam’s provocative question: what is the intention in this step? How about this one? How about this one? It was hard to tell. The stairwell was featureless, there was no way to judge my progress besides counting the torches which lined my path like mile markers on the highway. Steadily, as I went down, the torchlights were diminished. Soon, they were no more than flickering candles, and these too were grieving smaller and fainter. Eventually, I reached a final candle no bigger than a tea light. Beyond it, the stairs continued into darkness. I scooped up the tea light and used it to light my way until, inevitability, it flickered and breathed its last breath. Now I was fucked—too far down to fathom returning, but with no way to see through the utter darkness. I felt myself panic, and I stood still hoping for an answer. Eventually, I eased my foot forward, feeling out for the edge of the step, carefully—carefully, carefully!—lowering my foot. Then the next step. Then the next step. Soon, I had found the rhythm: I was walking, I was running, I was running at top speed down the stairs into the great unknown! Then my foot struck what I knew was the bottom. I had reached It—whatever it was.
What It was was a vast, cavernous room. I could tell by the echo of my footsteps, but I still couldn’t see anything; by the number of steps I’d descended, I assumed that I was many miles beneath the surface of the Earth. Suddenly, there was a burst of light that appeared from the ceiling. It was so bright that I had to cover my eyes. When they adjusted, I saw that I was in a room that looked like a European cathedral. The floor was an intensely polished stone, and the light was pouring in through a grand cupola that must have been three hundred feet above me. The texture of the light was astounding: it had a luminance that seemed impossibly pure, and a luster like a nicely shampooed head of hair. The light appeared to be flowing downwards, an immense waterfall of pure, clear light. I followed the waterfall down to where it cast a circular spotlight on the polished floor, noticing for the first time that I wasn’t alone. There, directly in the center of the spotlight, was a young boy of about four or five. He had curly brown ringlets.
I recognized him immediately. It wasn’t hard. He was me.
Immediately, reality came barging into my hallucination, rolling its eyes all the while. “Seriously?” said Reality. “Your Inner Child? What is this, bad screenwriting 101? Paging Dr Freud! Dr Freud to the nuthouse in the basement!” I watched myself tease myself for my own hallucination. Then I became aware of myself observing myself teasing myself. That was a fucking trip. I decided to ignore it and focus on the boy. It was clear that something was wrong, and he was uncomfortable.
The boy’s eyes were darting into the shadows at the edge of the grand room. I followed them, expecting to see… what? The Buddha? My Jewish mother? But a few minutes passed and no one appeared. I realized that we were likely alone. I approached the boy. He didn’t seem to recognize me—which made sense: how could he know, I no longer had hair. He introduced himself by using the strange Biblical name Jeremiah. I responded with the more boring name Jordan. But this didn’t seem to register. “Have you seen her?” Said Jeremiah. “Have you seen my playmate?” Immediately I knew that he was talking about Sally. I let out a long, self-putting sigh and began to tell Jeremiah the same sad-sack story I’d been telling every stranger about my breakup. “Codependency…mental health problems…heartbroken…lack of integrity.” I could see right away that these were words that the boy couldn’t understand. His lower lip started to quiver, and he suddenly burst out into a scream.
“WAAAAAAAAAAH. I WANT MY PLAYMATE!”
All of this was overwhelming. The scream was piercing, and I covered my ears. When is this kid going to shut up, I thought. Where are his parents? Why isn’t there anyone here to take care of his emotional…
Just like that, I had my insight.
I bent down to scoop up the crying boy, holding him and consoling him. I started again, telling another Story that was a different kind of true—and maybe more digestible.
“Sally has a new playmate now.”
Jeremiah wiped his eyes and looked at me, with snot running down his face. “Is she happy?”
I thought about it. “I think she is.”
“Will I find another playmate?
I thought about it again. “Probably.”
“Good.” The boy wiped his eyes, and just like that the tantrum passed.
We sat on the polished floor together and began to talk. It was a strange experience to reclaim old memories—equally bizarre as it was healing. I found it stunningly beneficial—bad plot device or not. And when I opened my eyes I was still lying in the wild grasses. The spider was gone; I wiped the sand from my face and peered up at the sky. The sun has jumped forward about an hour, and the morning’s apprehension was gone. I felt overwhelmed with joy and that old taste of freedom. I knew that something important had happened, even though I knew that I would struggle to explain just what.
Gathering my things, I rose to my feet and followed a sandy trail over the low dune to get to the beach. The mid-afternoon sun was glorious, and I stripped off my shirt to feel the heat on my bare chest. It felt healing and redemptive. I was there for about half an hour when I spotted a young woman walking toward me on the sand. There were only a few other people around—the beach was public but sparsely populated. The girl was wearing headphones, and as she approached me she appeared to be dancing and walking at once, grabbing her headphones, spiraling around. She looked like she was in an Apple commercial. I was coming down off the high, but I was still inebriated, and I wondered whether she was on mushrooms too. It was hard to understand which side of reality’s boundary I was occupying, especially because I’d just discovered how intricately the two were connected.
As the dancing girl neared me, she veered down towards the tideline, creating a safe and respectful distance. I watched her passively; I was still too high ti dream of having a conversation. Suddenly, a wave crashed and she was knee-deep in the ocean, fighting through soaked jeans to get out of the waves. Did I need to save her? No, she was fine. She shrugged her shoulders and waved at me, and I waved back as she continued dance-walking down the beach.
I watched her come, I watched her go. This felt like a novel experience. Was that the lesson with Sally? Should I have let her go? What if it had all ended amicably and platonically? Where—who—would I be now? This question circled around me like a turkey vulture, drifting calmly on the breeze. It was still there a half an hour later when the girl returned.
Once again, she came dance-walking down the beach, veering to the sand, escaping the surf but still waving as she passed. I waved back as she continued fifty yards beyond me before stopping and laying out her blanket on the sand. We were the only two around for two hundred yards, it seemed pretty clear that she was being flirtatious. She kept looking over to me and smiling. The attention felt foreign, it felt delightful, I didn’t know what it felt like to be admired and not have to chase. Was I interested? It was hard to tell, I was still a little too high, I didn’t dare go over and embarrass myself by fumbling through a conversation, so I lay there and did nothing. The girl stuck around for another half-hour before gathering her things, waving one final goodbye, then dance walking off down the beach.
I had a big smile as I watched her go. I felt high on freedom.
You learn early on, as a straight man, that there are certain stories you can’t tell because they don’t arrive at a discernible point. I wonder whether this is one of them—at the time, one of the most meaningful and important experiences of my life. What do I do with it? Where do I put it? The same place I store all other stories like this—in my backpack.